OPINION | Discontinuing Community Contributions: YouTube’s Way of Disabling the Deaf

Equality is not selective, but it seems like some people have begun to think otherwise – and especially so within the media industry. Mainstream media’s role in today’s socio-political sphere has become distinct as our knowledge of it continually develops with time and rigorous study. This is to say that the institutional biases, agendas, and talking points that media outlets deliberately portray are no longer covert; there’s a unique transparency that has been developed between the establishment and the audience which has never quite been there before. 

When large-scale companies speak out in support of movements pushing for equality such as Pride or Black Lives Matter, it’s typically understood that their intentions are not invested in the actual cause itself, but rather in gaining the attention and trust of consumers for profit. These displays serve as more of a marketing ploy, but at least the effort is there. Our understandings of PCSR (political corporate social responsibility) have shown us that despite a company’s true intentions, simply broadcasting these progressive messages does make a difference and helps to achieve a more equal environment, making them valuable to some extent. When it comes to YouTube, however, these same fabricated efforts are beginning to quickly fade.

On April 23rd, Creator Insider posted an interview highlighting two prominent members of YouTube’s technical team. The video’s main topic of discussion revolved around the platform’s ‘community contributions’ feature. While aiming to discuss the pros and cons of its functionality in a more public light, it seemed as though they had reached a decision before the conversation even started. Shortly thereafter, YouTube’s team made an official announcement stating that community contributions will be discontinued as of September 28th, 2020.

While it’s entirely YouTube’s choice to operate how they’d like, it should also be in their best interest to serve their own fan base. The company’s entire business model almost exclusively thrives off user-generated content, and so it only makes sense to aid its populace rather than depriving it of resources. These users vary in age, race, ethnicity, and gender, but it seems like YouTube doesn’t care about some of those who rely on additional support the most – its deaf members.

Ableism is a topic that often goes unmentioned when equality is at the forefront of discussions. It irks me to see how much effort is exuded for certain marginalized groups, yet nothing but neglect is shown for others of equivalent magnitude; neither the public nor the media have provided sufficient support in this regard. With deaf individuals in particular, merely communicating with those of hearing can become a near-impossible feat to conquer: Is this, in itself, not worthy of our help?

Not only has YouTube decided to ignore the needs of its non-hearing members, but they’ve stripped them of pre-existing aid as well. Ultimately, YouTube’s decision to remove community contributions will severely hinder their deaf demographic. This incredible lack of empathy and sensibility may prove how little consideration major media institutions truly have for issues of accessibility.

What are Community Contributions? 

Many people are unaware of what community contributions are on YouTube, and this can be attributed to the platform’s blatant inability to promote the feature effectively. At a basic level, the feature allows users to edit video titles, descriptions, closed captions, and subtitles for content creators. It’s important to note that changes can only be made if they are approved by other members of the creator’s community, making this a multi-step process with ample supervision. The system is not perfect by any means, but I question the company’s rash decision to remove it instead of improving it.

For those that are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning is easily the most essential part of community contributions. Closed captioning allows for users to understand dialogue, musical cues, changes in tone, along with any other relevant information that assists with comprehension, all without the need for audio. Unlike subtitles, closed captions can be turned on and off with a single click and are typically detailed enough for those with auditory disabilities. This is just one of the many ways to improve accessibility and provide a more inclusive experience for those at a similar disadvantage.

YouTube’s Decision is Damaging

With community contributions being removed soon, users will no longer be able to work toward the development of closed captions and other forms of auditory assistance. This will undoubtedly curb the way YouTube’s deaf community is able to create, alter, or even view content on the platform.

For deaf creators, producing content is difficult enough. Without community contributions, their content will quickly become inaccessible to a vast array of users with limited solutions. Videos that are shot entirely in sign language such as ASL (American Sign Language) will no longer be comprehensible to most hearing folk without accurate captioning. Similarly, those who exclusively rely on sign language will be unable to comprehend videos where the creator chooses to speak and implement other forms of sound. This leaves deaf content creators in a dichotomy where they are forced to cater their content to one demographic or the other, harming both the channel and its viewers alike.

The ability to create closed captioning will still be available, but only for the creators to do themselves; this would be a great alternative to community contributions if it took into consideration how difficult it is for deaf creators to do this efficiently. Creating high-quality content is a long and tiresome process to start. With these new changes, deaf creators will now spend even more time reviewing, translating, and captioning their own videos when they previously had the support of their viewers to do this for them – this is something that users gladly do and receive overwhelming gratitude in return.

With viewers’ ability to caption videos being stripped, these deaf creators are left to fend for themselves. They can resort to a few different options if they choose to continue making content after these changes. 

As it stands, many will have to begin outsourcing their closed captions for a fee, only heightening production expenses when that service was previously available for free. If third-party services are too expensive, they’ll likely be forced to create content without closed captioning at all, downgrading the overall quality and accessibility of their videos and leaving them helpless in the process. If they choose to take the task of captioning upon themselves, it’ll be even more challenging. Some deaf creators may be unable to fully understand what they are saying when opting to speak, for example. The editing process could take exponentially longer to conduct, making their uploading schedule grossly inconsistent compared to their usual workflow. Whatever the case, YouTube’s decision to remove community contributions will soon prove to be a detriment to all its deaf members – they simply cannot benefit from these changes in any way.

Dealing with the Disadvantages

This issue goes beyond the bounds of YouTube and could potentially serve as a sign for what may come next. The reality of this situation is that North American society is built for those who can hear: Why, then, is life becoming more difficult for those who can’t? Not only have deaf individuals gone unnoticed and underappreciated for so long, but evidently, it’s becoming borderline acceptable to rob them of essential support too. If this is our path to a more equal environment for all, we need to find a new one.

Unfortunately, the deaf community isn’t the only one missing out on adequate support; this is a problem that resides anywhere from homeless veterans to individuals with learning disabilities. It seems as though the rare spurts of attention that these groups see are short-winded and don’t accomplish nearly enough when compared to other streamlined movements. At this rate, they’re becoming virtually invisible to the public eye and a drastic change is needed to compensate.

It’s time to reconceptualize our ideas of equality, because as it stands, it doesn’t apply to everyone. Leading media institutions are showing signs of disinterest for select marginalized groups, but the problem doesn’t exclusively reside there. We, as individuals, need to make sure these pleas for help are heard rather than ignored. The media is influential by nature, but overall, it’s the people that shape the way in which we choose to live. Maybe, with time and an undying desire for change, we can make our society one that’s truly equal and without selectivity.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Steven Guitard
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Steven is a centrist thinker that heavily values independence, critical reasoning, and open dialogue more than anything. He is currently studying Rhetoric, Media, and Professional Communication at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. His work generally focuses on social change and the effects that media have on North American society.

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